Violent Outbursts From the Sun Could Have Sparked Origins of Life on Earth and Mars

To us, the sun usually seems pretty placid—rising and setting in an orderly rhythm and gently warming and lighting the planet. But the star has its bad moods and can produce giant outbursts of charged particles streaming out into space. Those temper tantrums would have been more common when the sun was younger, with perhaps dozens of giant flares happening every day. But while those outbursts can be destructive, to put it mildly, they may actually have helped foster the very first life, according to a new study published in The Astrophysical Journal.

That's because it takes energy to stick atoms and molecules together to gradually build up to the compounds that let life thrive. “On Mars, for example, there might have been life prior to stripping the atmosphere,” lead author Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, told New Scientist. “It could be one after the other: the energetic particles first allow life to form, and then destroy it.”

So the team of astrophysicists asked what sort of energetic burps the sun might have produced early in its life, using data from one particular large solar outburst, which happened in January 2005 when a giant solar flare and a stream of energetic protons shot out of the sun. Then, they figured out how those outbursts would affect an ancient Mars, with a thicker atmosphere that blocked many of the particles, and a modern Mars.

01_22_solar_flare The sun's temper tantrums could have encouraged early life to form, a new study suggests. NASA/Goddard//SDO

They found that the energy carried to Mars by the charged particles match up pretty well with other potential energy sources scientists have suggested could spark life, like heat produced when meteorites slam into the Earth or heat belched out by volcanoes. And when they looked at how much of certain ingredients the phenomenon could actually produce, they got more promising amounts than other theorized sources of early life, like meteorites ferrying compounds between planets.

Even better, they know this particular type of particle can cause reactions that produce a compound called hydrogen cyanide, which is a key pre-life ingredient, since it can produce the predecessors of genetic material, proteins and fat.

Read more: Life in the Solar System Likely Exists and is More Common Than We Think

The team also looked at the idea in the context of finding life on planets orbiting other stars. A particularly strong group of candidates are called M-dwarfs, the most common type of star in the universe. They're the smallest type of star, but they tend to be a little more temperamental than other stars. But when the scientists applied their calculations to M-dwarfs, they found that might not be such a bad thing: Planets around these stars would receive even more energy than planets around stars like our sun, potentially spurring more compound formation.

Of course, there's no way to prove how life actually begins without watching the process unfold somewhere, but knowing what could theoretically do the trick and what can't takes us one step closer to understanding our origins.

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